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Andrew Gunther

Andrew Gunther

Posted: August 17, 2010 12:12 PM

What if our newest invasive species is one that started in the lab and was unleashed on an unsuspecting world, despite abundant warnings from scientists and others? And what if it is not even really "natural" to begin with? And what if this new invasive species, once liberated from a controlled setting, became even more potent and more persistent in the wild? Then you would be talking about genetically modified (GM) canola, which according to a report presented last Friday at the Ecological Society of America, is now growing in the wild and is busily evolving into a plant that will outstrip our best efforts to contain it. It also has the potential to cross-pollinate and swap genes with other non-GM wild plants.

More than 83 percent of the wild canola tested by researchers traveling through North Dakota tested positive for GM genes. But this is what's really terrifying: some of the plants tested positive for resistance to both glyphosphate (Roundup) and glusfosinate (Liberty). Commercial GM canola is resistant to either Roundup or Liberty, not both. The dual resistance evolved in the wild, after the plants had escaped. The wild canola is doing what living things do--mutating and selecting for traits that will best ensure its survival. And all without our help.

I've been blogging about the known and unknown risks of GM crops for awhile. But what we are now witnessing is true escape-from-the-test-tube science, and it could be devastating. The escaped GM canola, bred to be herbicide-resistant, is now in danger of transferring those genes to other wild plants. According to Scientific American there are eight species of wild weeds GM canola is most likely capable of hybridizing. According to an interview with Meredith Schafer from the University of Arkansas, who presented the report, "We really don't know what the consequences of the gene escape [are]. We don't know what these plants are going to do."

It's not hard, though, to see the potential consequences. The consequences are that, sooner or later, as GM evolves and genes are swapped between GM and non-GM plants, GM and wild will be one in the same--there could be virtually no such thing as a non-GM food plant or food crop. There will be no more choice between eating GM and non-GM food crops. And all will be resistant to our known herbicides. If GM canola can establish itself in the wild, evolve and potentially cross-pollinate with other plants, what about the other experiments lying in wait at the lab?

According to Dr. Cynthia Sagers, associate professor at the University of Arkansas and one of the two researchers who discovered the wild GM canola, other GM traits could raise different concerns, including human health risks. She added, "There have been 1,100 plants approved for field trials and who knows what those are -- pharmaceutical proteins, drought-resistant crops? Herbicide-resistances are very simple traits. Products in development are more complicated."

Do we want them running wild, too? Can we be sure it can be prevented?

I guess the best we can hope is that we can trust the claims Big Ag has been making that GM crops, even those that escape into the wild, present little to no risk. Although with the timely reminder of Jeffery Smith's recent "Anniversary of a Whistleblower" Huffington Post blog, I am not convinced.

It all started innocently enough. Meredith Schafer and her colleague, Dr. Sagers, spotted some pretty yellow flowers near a parking lot in North Dakota. They happened to have with them a test strip very similar to a pregnancy test. Using it, they were able to determine within minutes if the plant was carrying one or both of the two most commonly introduced genes in GM canola. It was. "Immediately we knew we needed to investigate it further," Sagers said.

They traveled throughout North Dakota, taking multiple samples, often from roadsides sprayed with herbicides where the only weed still surviving was wild canola. The duo speculated that a number of the plants were found on roads where they might have fallen off during transport. But some sites had no link to the transport routes at all, which points to the plants having established wild populations. According to Schafer, that's not supposed to happen.

I am not someone who advocates turning our backs on science and returning to the 13th century. Science has a crucial role to play as society progresses. What bothers me is the lack of oversight, caution and vigilance when science and business, in this case Big Ag, intersect. I've seen the damaging consequences over and over in farming: sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals leading to deadly antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria; Industrial chicken production leading to polluted and dying waterways; Massive animal warehouse operations leading to the decline of pastured farming and family farms and an acceptance of inhumane conditions; Monster GM farmed salmon.

These, however, are all circumstances that we can still control and are trying to reverse. But in our arrogance that we are masters of all we survey, it seems we've gone one step too far. In an interview with Discovery News, Sagers said, "I think the herbicide resistance is going to be a very serious problem for agronomists and farmers in the near future. I think it could be an environmental problem if we find we've created these herbicide-resistant weeds."

We are playing Russian roulette with our future and our children's future. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the consequences of trying to remake the natural world so it can turn a tidy profit for a privileged few. Nature has a way of showing us who's really the boss.

This blog also appears on the Animal Welfare Approved website.